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Point Of View
An Education Tree Without Enough STEMS

by Iain B. Probert

The recent Space Career Fair, held in conjunction with the 24th National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, is a good barometer with which to gauge the workforce of today – and the future. The more than 200 attendees that braved the early Colorado spring snow conditions can be divided pretty evenly into two groups: under-graduate and graduate students, and transitioning military and aerospace personnel. All spent close to seven hours at the event listening to space industry companies talk about their respective missions, company ethos, and worker compensation packages.

After a networking lunch, all registrants were able to visit the 25 company and university booths to discuss opportunities, present and future. And what a future… the company representatives were extremely impressed with the quality of both groups of registrants.

Two days earlier, at the beginning of the symposium, the Space Foundation released The Space Report 2008, The Authoritative Guide to Global Space Activity. Extensively researched, The Space Report 2008’s findings included that “the U.S. space industry workforce is well compensated, due in part to the high skill and educational level of most space industry workers and to the demand for their skills. The U.S. space industry’s annual average wage was $88,200 in 2006. This was more than double the 2006 private sector average wage of $42,400. The U.S. space industry payroll reached $23.5 billion in 2006. In fact, all space industry wages are well above the average private sector wage.”

Space industry employers today need workers who are creative problem solvers with strong math and science backgrounds to enable America’s continued leadership in innovation and technology.

These same employers will, in 20 years, demand much the same of the children that are entering pre-kindergarten and kindergarten this year. Will this generation be equipped to become the innovators and entrepreneurs to lead our space efforts in the second quarter of this century? The Space Report 2008 found that “The high level of pay in space-related occupations stems in part from the fact that many of these skilled occupations require well-trained workers that hold at least a bachelor’s degree, and often advanced degrees.” It goes onto say that, “Well-trained engineers are a must for the U.S. space industry to grow and thrive.”

Unfortunately, in spite of the lure of high salaries and the promise of high employer demand, the number of U.S. students enrolling in the requisite undergraduate Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) coursework is rapidly dwindling.

Across the nation’s education community, the debate continues about the STEM education crisis. The concern is not just the small amount of U.S. students enrolling in STEM-related undergraduate studies, but also successful completion of STEM-related higher education once initiated.

Throw into the mix the ongoing discussions about the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), where for every educator and parent proponent there seem to be equal numbers of opponents to part, or all, of the program.

The core principles of NCLB reform are, in part:
  • Annual testing
  • The publishing of data
  • Assistance to students and schools that fall behind
  • And for each child to be achieving on grade level or better in reading and math by 2014
Is this focus on NCLB too little and too late, or just what the new Pre-K and kindergarten classes, the future workforce of 2025, needs? NCLB does little to address how we inspire, enable, and propel our children toward success in STEM-related disciplines.

The commission on NCLB reported that the Act “has had significantly more success in assessing student performance than in improving it.” One thing is certain, that the national STEM debate seems to be the best kept secret outside the education and space professions. Even inside, there are many who either refuse to admit we have a problem, or assume that the status quo is just fine!

Perhaps the current hurdle is that of analysis paralysis. I have stopped counting the number of STEM meetings and/or committees I have been asked to attend/serve on. Many are well meaning, while others seem just an excuse for an institution to garner more funds in the name of conducting STEM research.

Perhaps the responses from the Space Career Fair attendees illuminates part of the solution. Once each registrant had the opportunity to hand out copies of their resume, they were asked to give their feedback of the Space Career Fair experience and to answer a couple of questions regarding pre K-12 STEM education. One question was, “From your perspective, what year in school (pre K–12) do you think science content should be introduced into the curriculum?” The overwhelming response was very similar from all attendees: Pre-K to 3rd grade.

I totally agree. Spending significant time with a couple of youngsters who have recently “graduated” to age three and five, I continue to be amazed as as to what these young minds, with huge sponge-like properties, can absorb. Here is a golden, and yet often overlooked, opportunity to inspire and engage these young minds.

On the most basic level, for example, it is important that children, while being taught the joys of reading, be introduced to both fantasy and fact—exposing their minds to fiction and nonfiction. How about the significant adults in children’s lives becoming highly encouraged, educated, and motivated themselves to become education partners with the teachers and schools responsible for their youngsters’ progress? How about balanced K–12 curriculums where mathematics and science are given as much instruction time, resources, and glory as, say, football? Imagine a scenario where each subject interweaves with the next… where, regardless of subject taught, teachers interact with one another on a curriculum that calls for cross content pollination. For example, teaching space weather by using mathematics to integrate multiple content areas while addressing gaps in space science enrichment.

In addition, let us not forget one of our greatest resources, our teachers. For centuries, teaching was a revered profession. Now, judging by low compensation levels and abuse tolerated from student and parent alike, the profession appears to be regulated to the status of an also-ran.

In 2025, the space industry will be an even more attractive and lucrative place to work; however, the K–12 students of the next academic year will be short changed beyond imagination if they are not exposed to a balanced and quality education that includes STEM disciplines.

I will close with one more quote from The Space Report 2008 about why the American space industry must have a qualified and highly skilled workforce to thrive.

“Shortages of these workers could undermine the ability of the nation’s space industry to execute the portfolio of current and planned space programs. In addition, the complexity of space-related programs has increased, demanding more diverse engineering skill sets. An additional challenge for the space industry is that many new space programs demand a mix of skills that is forcing the industry to compete for talent in new areas. For instance, today’s space industry must hire software or network engineers proficient in Internet protocols needed for transformational communications. In order to successfully compete in the labor market, the space industry must be able to continue to pay its employees well and offer them interesting tasks in order to attract the individuals who drive the process of innovation.”

About the author
Iain B. Probert is the Space Foundation’s Vice President, Education